Slieve Donard, the highest mountain of the gorgeous Mourne Mountains, and the highest point of County Down and of all Ulster, was a challenge not to be missed, and gave me another county top to tick off the list.
The distinctive shape of this mountain, its bulk and whale-like profile, was visible from many of the places we visited around the edge of the Mournes, and called out to be trodden. It is not without neighbours equally haunting in their shape and immensity, but Slieve Donard is the greatest of them. For those who have not been among the Mourne Mountains, they create in a relatively small compass in the southernmost of one county a sudden landscape of rare intensity.
The mountain has the wee seaside resort of Newcastle at its foot, and here we started. At one point on the promenade is a piece of modern art in the form of a cone with slot cut through it, arranged so that a look through the slot is of the summit of Slieve Donard: an interesting conceit, or a tribute to the mountain’s dominating presence.
We went down onto the beach and I trod with the sea washing on my walking boots, so that way there was no cheating and I could say I was climbing from sea level. My family then went off to explore the Tollymore Forest Park on the north side of the Mournes, which, they told me when they returned, was lovely – maybe next time then. Today though I headed inland.
From the beach through the car park and out almost at once into a wood. The route I was taking was up the tautologously named Glen Valley; the valley of the Glen River, and a lovely stream it is, tumbling over rocks worn smooth by its waters – in places not so much a river as a mile-long shallow waterfall, and with plenty of genuine cascades.
The path follows the river, on one side then the other, up though the woods it waters, at first a gentle climb.
It is a popular climb too – my hopes of boasting of achieving a rare feat were disappointed, except that I at least had walked from sea level not from the coach drop-off a little uphill, for all the difference it makes (and as it happens I coincided with a charity walk). One thing I will say for the walkers of Ulster – they know to wear proper boots: I have seen people trying to clamber lake District fells in plimsoles and flip-flops and wondered what planet they were on, but here in the Mourne Mountains there were stout boots on show.
Eventually the tree cover thins and the path emerges, but I was not out of the woods yet (except literally). There on the other side of the stream stands a large, domed ice house. It looks in form like a giant igloo, except that an igloo is made of snow and an ice-house contains ice, or did in its heyday. The ice-house was built for the estate, and I could imagine weary servants tramping up the much as I had to this far ice-house to collect ice and trudge back with barrows on an inadequate path, muttering curses under their breath, heavy-laden to the great house, wherever that is. In a valley shaped by nature, the building stands out, but is a charm in its own way.
On then upwards. From here the valley is open and you can see how wide is this slice through the hill. In fact it is separating two mountains; Slieve Donard to the south-east and Slieve Commedagh to the north-west. There stands the challenge, which I will finish next time.
Maps and books
- Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland:
- The Mourne Walks, by Paddy Dillon
- The Mourne Mountains: Celebration of a Place Apart by David Kirk
- More books on the Mourne Mountains…